Commentary

Okajima, Papelbon shut the door on Rockies

Originally Published: October 25, 2007
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

BOSTON -- The Boston Red Sox relievers have a neat little pre-game ritual before taking their seats in the bullpen. They stand in the outfield en masse, respectfully wait for the starter to complete his warmup throws, then pass along fist bumps and words of encouragement as Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling or whoever is pitching that night begins his trek toward the mound.

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Then the game begins, and the Boston relievers look like first graders on a sugar high. Freed from adult supervision, they raise a ruckus by banging on the roof of the bullpen with metal spikes.

"It's just our way of trying to rally the troops,'' said veteran Mike Timlin. "Some people wear rally hats. We drum.''

As a national TV audience and the Colorado Rockies discovered Thursday night, they also pitch.

Schilling was valiant and effective in Game 2 of the World Series, but he only lasted 5 1/3 innings. That prompted manager Terry Francona to call on lefty Hideki Okajima, who escaped a sixth-inning jam and proceeded to pitch 2 1/3 scoreless innings with four strikeouts. Not a bad legacy for the first Japanese-born pitcher to appear in a World Series.

Then Jonathan Papelbon did his part with 1 1/3 scoreless innings, not to mention a memorable pickoff of Matt Holliday at first base to give the Rockies something special to regret on their charter flight home to Denver.

"This was the Pap-ajima show tonight,'' Schilling said after Boston's 2-1 victory.

For all the headlines that David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Schilling generate, the Red Sox bullpen is pretty darned entertaining in its own right.

Papelbon, with his weird hair and odd assortment of tattoos, exudes an air of menace reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in "The Shining'' as he stares in for the sign from the catcher. And his strange, quirky version of Riverdance -- done in various stages of undress during on-field Red Sox celebrations -- is a can't miss clip on YouTube.

In a recent Sports Illustrated story, Schilling described Papelbon as a guy who'll never be confused with a charter member of Mensa. When asked if Papelbon has the perfect mentality for a closer, Timlin told a reporter, "You're gonna need a lot more tape if we're gonna describe his mentality.''

[+] EnlargeHideki Okajima
Nick Laham/Getty ImagesHideki Okajima has been lights-out in relief, allowing no runs in six appearances this postseason.
The Boston bullpen went 19-14 this season and ranked first in the American League with a 3.10 ERA, while simultaneously leading the league in bonding rituals. Under the guidance of coach Gary Tuck, the Red Sox relievers have adopted a "Pirates'' theme in their bullpen lair. Timlin, the de facto leader of the relief corps, goes by the nickname of "Admiral,'' and recently brought in a stuffed parrot to serve as bullpen mascot.

That incessant banging began during an August trip to Seattle, when the Red Sox scored six late runs in a 9-2 victory over the Mariners. First the relievers used water bottles to make a racket. Then they graduated to the big metal spikes used to hold tarpaulins in place. The noise was loud enough Thursday that Papelbon was caught plugging his ears with his fingers.

"We were down in the bullpen and started rattling some stuff around,'' said Kyle Snyder. "It created a beat, we happened to score a lot of runs, and we had a lot of fun with it. It's our own version of 'Stomp.' ''

Okajima, whose two-year, $2.5 million deal with Boston was a mere afterthought to Daisuke Matsuzaka's $52 million windfall last winter, fits nicely into the mix. He's a low-ego, unassuming guy, a hard worker, and has the requisite ability to forget the bad outings and move forward.

He also possesses great deception, and a novel motion that ends with him snapping his head downward and looking at the ground as the ball leaves his hand.

Message to young Red Sox fans in Boston and Japan: Don't try this at home.

Okajima gave up a home run to Kansas City's John Buck on his first major-league pitch, then didn't allow a run over a span of 20 2/3 innings and 20 appearances. In hindsight, things really began clicking for him after a bullpen outing in Anaheim, when pitching coach John Farrell made some alterations to his changeup. The revamped pitch, which resembles a screwball, was dubbed the "Oki-Doki'' by Tuck.

Still, the move to America has necessitated a multitude of adjustments for Okajima. When he struggled after the All-Star break, Francona forsook short-term concerns and shut him down for 12 days because of left shoulder fatigue.

Great call. Okajima's stuff is now as crisp as a fall day in New England, and it's shown in the postseason results: He's thrown 9 2/3 shutout innings in the playoffs.

This was the Pap-ajima show tonight.

--Curt Schilling

"Mentally I was able to rest for the postseason and the World Series,'' Okajima said. "I was able to refresh my mind.''

Can you say "cult hero"? When Okajima came out of the bullpen in the sixth inning Thursday, the sellout crowd at Fenway rocked to the techno song "Okajima, Oki Doki,'' which has become to Okajima what "Hells Bells" is to Trevor Hoffman.

But he won't dance, so don't ask him.

"Papelbon is good,'' Okajima said. "I'm bad.''

Standing on a mound, they're both pretty darned good. And they've brought the Red Sox within two games of the ultimate celebration.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer